Board appearance might be problem for Griffith

June 23rd, 2015 7:05 pm

First Posted: 10/17/2013

As he’s done many times, former Luzerne County controller Walter Griffith took to the podium during a county meeting Wednesday and grilled officials.

But this county retirement board meeting was different because two of the subjects of his critique — Retirement Coordinator Rick Hummer and board Solicitor Donald Karpowich — were among the people taped in Griffith’s illegal recordings, which labels them as his victims and case witnesses.

Griffith’s plea agreement, signed last month, said he can’t have any contact with victims or witnesses involved in his recordings, and Hummer said he and Karpowich are reporting Griffith’s actions to authorities.

Two of the three illegal recordings cited in the complaint against Griffith involved the retirement board — a July 2010 telephone conference about legal issues and an August 2010 retirement board closed-door executive session. Hummer and Karpowich were at the conference and meeting along with others.

Griffith told investigators Hummer had asked him to record the conference call, but Hummer disputed that claim and said he was not aware Griffith had recorded the executive session, the criminal complaint said.

Pension question

Griffith began his public comment Wednesday questioning a meeting agenda item — his receipt of $7,167 he had paid into the pension fund while he worked as elected controller.

He asked Karpowich why the board wasn’t paying him interest on his contributions, which would have amounted to about $469.

Karpowich said Griffith pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstructing the administration of justice, and the state pension forfeiture law prohibits interest payments to former employees who have committed that offense during county employment.

After suggesting some work be handled in-house to save money, Griffith brought up January pay raises the board had approved for Karpowich and Hummer.

Griffith said Hummer serves as board secretary and argued the retirement law says the compensation of the secretary shall be fixed by the salary board or council, with no mention of the retirement board. The salary board was abolished by home rule.

“So why did Mr. Hummer get a raise without the council approving it?” Griffith said.

Griffith took it a step further, saying he believes Karpowich’s compensation also should have been approved by council, even though the law doesn’t specifically cite that position.

“If it wasn’t approved by council, is that money going to be given back to the county, because I think it should be because it was done illegally — or not illegally, that is probably a bad choice, but unknowingly,” Griffith said, adding he has “some concerns about why we’re not following the pension law.”

Verbal exchange

Griffith then moved onto another issue, but Karpowich confronted him on the salary point.

“I’ve got to tell you Walter, I’m hoping your statements aren’t made because me and Ricky were victims of crimes committed by you,” Karpowich said.

“I take offense to that,” Griffith said, his voice rising.

“I do, too,” Karpowich replied. “I take offense, Walter, that you’re up here challenging a stipend we received last year — now.”

Griffith said he discovered the salary approval provision Wednesday while researching the law to find out why he wasn’t receiving interest on his contribution.

Board Chairman Eugene Kelleher tried to stop the exchange, saying the board will review the matter, but Griffith continued maintaining he wasn’t raising the issue for personal reasons.

“I take offense to the fact that you’re being offensive to the fact that you guys aren’t even following the law that you say you’re going to follow, and you’re a solicitor, for chrissake,” Griffith said.

“For chrissake …,” Karpowich said.

“That’s right. Thank you,” Griffith said.

“That’s offensive,” the solicitor said.

“Too bad,” Griffith replied.

Complaint pending

At the end of the meeting, Karpowich said he reviewed the law and is confident the salaries were properly approved.

Hummer said he and Karpowich contacted the state Attorney General’s Office on Thursday to determine whether a complaint should be lodged with that agency or the county District Attorney’s Office.

The board increased Hummer’s salary $3,000, from $45,000 to $48,000, in January because he is handling meeting agenda preparation, meeting minutes and other board secretary duties previously performed by the county controller before home rule. The controller had been receiving $5,000 for the additional work.

Karpowich’s salary was increased from $12,000 to $15,000, compared to his compensation as high as $40,000 before home rule. The pay increase came with a stipulation he would no longer be eligible for county health care, even though he did not receive it, and a requirement to start documenting time spent on retirement board business.

The salaries are funded by the pension system.

Plea agreement

Griffith, 58, of Kingston Township, received three years of probation in September in exchange for his guilty plea. The plea agreement also required him to resign as controller, cancel his race for re-election and agree not to seek public office during the probationary period.

He has attended several county meetings as a private citizen since the plea agreement and sent an email to county council members Thursday afternoon challenging the accuracy of salary and benefit projections in county Manager Robert Lawton’s proposed 2014 budget.

Griffith said he does not believe he violated the no-contact stipulation because he was addressing the board about a procedural issue, and the judge never said he couldn’t raise concerns at public county meeting.

“I thought I was prevented from contacting them directly. Can I not address council now because Stephen A. Urban sits on council and was in a recording when he was a retirement board member?” Griffith said. “I don’t think I have to stop addressing county problems just because I’m on probation.”

Griffith said he has no problem with the raises but wants to ensure legal requirements are followed, and he said he holds no grudge against Hummer or Karpowich for their responses in the investigation against him.

“I was the one who made the mistake, and I don’t hold that against them. My punishment was already doled out,” Griffith said.